Obama’s Budding Syrian Warriors

Syrian Civil War

Those above are our guys, apparently. Pity their machine gun just blew up. But Michael Crowley still manages to argue that the president is “finally getting serious” about Syria in his decision to seek $500 million from Congress to train “moderate” rebel groups there:

Obama … still wants Assad gone. He just doesn’t want him toppled by ISIS. It’s not exactly a simple plan. And it will unfold slowly. If Congress approves Obama’s plan, it will be months longer before a Pentagon training program gets underway—and more time still before it forges enough skilled fighters to shape the Syrian conflict.

What’s clear is that Obama understands the status quo in Syria is a disaster, one that is creating what the recently-departed United Nations special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi,called a “failed state” prone to “blow up” the wider region. And so Obama may be admitting he’s wrong. After months of arguing that taking serious action in Syria is too risky, Obama is signaling that the consequences of inaction — now unfolding across northern and western Iraq — are too dangerous to tolerate.

Or perhaps too dangerous to avoid appearing to do nothing, while not exactly doing much – for the exact reasons we have not done much before. No one has ever shown how aid could be sent to some rebels and not get purloined by the crazier ones – no one. The premise of Mike’s argument is that somehow this wasn’t and isn’t the case – but it is, as Juan Cole explains:

Training given by the US to “moderates” will be shared with ISIS and other radicals.

It is obvious that the training the US Central Intelligence Agency gave Afghan Mujahidin in northern Pakistan in the 1980s, in how to form covert cells and how to plan and execute tactical operations flowed to the Arab volunteers who were allied with the Mujahidin. In other words, US training helped to produce al-Qaeda when the training was shared by trainees with allied radicals.

There is little doubt that any special training given Syrian Sunnis by the US will be acquired by members of al-Qaeda affiliates for use against the US. It will be acquired because out on the battlefield US-trained moderates will be de facto allies of ISIS, and so will need the latter and will fight alongside them, sharing techniques. It will also be acquired when the moderates defect to the al-Qaeda affiliates.

Keating also questions the logic behind the intervention:

Given the atrocities he has committed, it is an unpalatable notion, but we may be fast approaching—if we haven’t already passed—the point at which the humanitarian and regional stability consequences of continuing to support the fight against Assad outweigh those of accepting that he will remain in power.

I would also hope that before authorizing these funds, Congress presses the administration to explain why the $500 million given to the rebels to fight ISIS will be more effective than the billions spent on training and equipping the Iraqi army that crumbled before them this month. The question becomes even more pressing given the nearly $5 billion that the president wants to fund counterterrorism training in several countries. (Remember when we were pivoting away from the Middle East?)

My faint hope is that all this activity is a ruse for doing very little. But my hope is fading, as the hegemonist impulse remains.

(Photo: Two Free Syrian Army (FSA) members injured after a machine gun exploded while shooting outside the Aleppo prison on May 26, 2014. By Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.)